Interview: Kevin Bachus On The Fall Of The Phantom

One of the founders of the Xbox concept, Kevin Bachus went on to become CEO of Infinium Labs, the firm behind the much-maligned Phantom console. Talking to Gamasutra, he looks back on his time there and the "baffling" reaction to the Phantom.
Game executive Kevin Bachus rose to prominence as a product manager for DirectX, and wound up being one of the four major creatives behind the original Xbox console for Microsoft. From Microsoft though, Bachus went on to become CEO of Infinium Labs, maker if the ill-fated and much-maligned Phantom console, which aimed to make PC gaming easier to bring into the living room, but which never came to market. Former CEO and founder Timothy Roberts was accused by the SEC of stock manipulation, and the company diverted into creating a 'gaming lapboard' peripheral. Recently though, the renamed Phantom Entertainment has been on the attempted rise, trying to get new investments and interest in a new iteration of the console/PC hybrid model. At a recent event, and just before the launch of OnLive, which addresses some of the goals that the PC-based Phantom was aiming for at one point, Gamasutra caught up with Kevin Bachus. Bachus actually resigned from the firm back in 2005, and in this interview, we find out what he's up to, and get a few more details about the many trials of Infinium Labs. What have you been doing since your time with Infinium Labs? Kevin Bachus: Well, I kind of have taken the last year off. So now, I'm kind of trying to reconnect with the industry and kind of get a sense of what's going on and what the big challenges are, that sort of thing. I'm curious to know what you think, having previously been in charge of Xbox, how do you think the three consoles are sort of doing in terms of their online experiences because those seem to be the main differentiating factors right now? KB: Well, I think that in general, what we're seeing is what you'd expect to see at this stage of any console cycle, which is that the three systems have matured and they have all sort of staked out their particular niche or their particular territory. I think that Nintendo clearly has done a fabulous job of reaching and embracing a segment of the population that maybe historically hasn't thought about playing games. I think that's great for all of us. It's driven a much healthier industry, financially speaking, that allows publishers to invest in bigger games and more compelling games that are enabled by this generation of hardware on the other systems. And so, I think that's fantastic. I think Microsoft continues to innovate in the area of different types of online gameplay and enabling publishers to do things in a consistent way, in an easy to understand way, and in a way that's really focused on what the gamer wants. I think that Sony has done a really admirable job of raising the bar from a technology standpoint. I suspect that -- although you can never really know for sure -- they were wounded when Xbox came out right after PlayStation 2 with arguably more powerful hardware. I think that they responded by trying to produce the best piece of hardware possible. Along with that comes the challenge of the price point, the challenge of having sophisticated development tools. But there again, I think that all the criticism that was leveled against PlayStation 2 and all the praise that was given to the first Xbox because of the maturity of the development tools challenged them to do a better job this time around. This is why I think you've seen very little griping from developers about the complexity of PlayStation 3 despite the very powerful Cell chip and the different architecture it poses. I've actually seen some griping. KB: Not as much as ... Remember how it was last time? It was off the charts. How do you feel about [Phantom Entertainment] kind of trying to start up again? They sent out a PDF trying to get more funding again. KB: Sure, that PDF has been sent to me about a hundred times by about a hundred different people. Well, it's hard to say. I've not really stayed in touch with anybody who's still at the company, and so I only know probably about as much about it as you do. I guess that on the whole, I wish them nothing but success. I think that for me, there's kind of an empty place in our heart where Phantom should be because there was tremendous skepticism about the system and a lot of joke-telling and a lot of criticism. In some cases, there was also some bitterness and nastiness that was directed at the product, which is unfortunate because for those who actually spent the time to get to understand what we were doing and looked at it, I think they saw something that probably was pretty cool. Maybe in a way, it was a little bit ahead of its time because it was attempting to make the whole process of accessing games easier and therefore more accessible to a broader audience. I'm not naive enough to think that it was on par with what Apple has done with the iTunes store and applications for iPhone, but on a much, much smaller scale, it was trying to address the same opportunity that Apple saw. There's a large number of people who have a passion for games but don't consider themselves to be gamers, don't check out the web sites, and don't haunt Best Buy. They don't know what's worth their money. I think the idea still is very sound. I think that it's unfortunate because one of the things that I really reflected on when I left the company was that to some extent the business was unfinished. And more than that, I realized that if the product never came to market, there would probably be a lot of people that would have said, "Well see, that just goes to show you. It was never serious, it was never real; there was never anything there." The truth is quite the opposite. The product was tantalizingly close to coming to market. But there was so much momentum that was difficult ultimately to overcome. I think that it sort of was a case of self-fulfilling prophecy. A lot of people looked at it and said, "Well, there's gotta be something else going on. There must be something behind the scenes, something nefarious." And so, they looked at evidence selectively, including the fact that the product still hasn't come to market as evidence to prove their point. In fact, what they were doing was continuing to make it harder and harder for us to actually ship the product that we had already designed, built, and lined up content for with retailers and all that. Although, there were a couple of quirks involved, ultimately, and the founder being brought up on various charges. He was kind of a crook. KB: So, you're talking specifically about the company's founder (Timothy Roberts), and I don't have enough insight... You know, almost all of that played out after I left the company. While I was there, there were initial allegations. He left the company, and we certainly did everything we could to respond to the request that the FCC was making, but I really honestly don't know very much about how that played out. Somebody told me that there was a fine and some other restrictions that were imposed, which doesn't necessarily imply that he was ever guilty because if there was a settlement -- often times you reach a settlement because it's just easier to do that than to go through the hassle, costs, and time of a trial. So, I don't know what to say about that. It's also difficult... It's easy to throw around the term... I don't want to defend Tim either. I'm in an awkward situation here trying to explain my removed perception of it, and I don't want to be an apologist for him because I just don't know the situation. But just to give you an alternative perspective, you'd have to kind of dig into what his motives were for the things he was accused of doing. Was he doing it simply for self-benefit? Was he doing it because he thought that it would in some strange way help the company? Was he doing it in a way because it would help the company and also enrich himself? I don't know. But I think without really knowing the details of the situation, it's kind of inappropriate to jump in and say, "Well, the guy was a crook." Again, it goes back to what I was saying that there was this perception long before I even jumped the company that the company must be a swindle -- "it has to be; it can't possible be doing what it was doing." From my perspective, it absolutely was doing... You know, we built the product, we built the network, we acquired the games. Like, all the stuff that we talked about, it was all real. You could touch it, you could try it, it was ready to be manufactured. But our funding situation was made complicated by a number of things, not the least of which was this lingering perception that, "Well, you know, they must be crooks." So, it's not as easy as just saying, "Well, he was accused of these things, and he settled, so he's a crook." There's a lot of stuff that you have to look at, which is why I've tried to move on from that and not really try to figure that out. So, I guess the Phantom is not something that you would be interested in revisiting necessarily? KB: Me personally? Yeah. KB: Well, how do I answer that? I would really love to see it come out. I would really love to see it come to market. From a personal satisfaction standpoint, I would love to see that happen. But on the other hand, I've sort of imparted that already. And so, to some extent, I'd have to go backwards in order to go forwards. For me personally, to try to answer your question, I feel like I've sort of already tried to tackle that mountain, and I don't really feel like I had to sort of reach the summit to feel fulfilled. I'd love to see it come to market. And also, the company has changed. It's not even the same people anymore. So, you can't really go back to a moment in time. If I could go back to a moment in time and say, "Okay, well, look, here's a check for however many millions to start the assembly line." Would I do that? Oh, I'd do that in a second. You bet. But would I do that now, that's a complicated question to answer. What are you looking to get into, going forward? KB: Well, there are two things I've done ever since I left Microsoft in one form or another. One is to try and figure out a way to reduce the cost of production without affecting quality. You've heard about it constantly at DICE. John Riccitiello said it well -- the only thing that's increasing faster than this industry's revenues are its costs. And I've seen that for more than a decade. I think that it's not healthy, and I've done a lot of things over the last several years to try in one form or another to provide solutions to that. The other thing that I've done, and Phantom certainly fits into this category, is to increase the audience for games, for the reasons that I told you earlier. I think that an industry with a large and diverse audience is an important industry, it's a powerful industry, it's a stable industry, it's an industry that we can all be proud of without challenging the nature of having hardcore gamer's games. And so, whatever I do, I'm going to continue probably for the rest of my career to try and find a way to do one or both of those things -- to reduce the cost of production without affecting quality, and to increase the audience for games. I think therein lies the key to growth for our industry. And hopefully, I'm not alone in that. Hopefully, there are a lot of people who feel that those are the two big pressing issues for the industry. What do you think about the future of digital download? KB: Well, clearly, it's the way forward for the industry. Will it entirely replace physical packaged goods? Probably eventually. But the challenge that we have is that as human beings, we're kind of hard-wired to value tangible things. It's just in our DNA, it's in our base monkey brains. You look at a chair, and it has value. You think about a song or a story, and we're just not wired to think about that thing as having the same kind of value that a physical objects has. This is why you hear over and over and over and over about how people who would never in a million years even think about shoplifting a CD, think nothing about downloading the music that's on that CD illegally. It's because the physical form has value. And so, to really make the packaged goods software industry disappear, you'd have to sort of assume that there's a segment of the population that no longer feels that that's valuable. That said, there's no question that that time is coming, and you will start to see retailers transition away from software sales to hardware sales. They'll become the primary distributors of hardware. And even then, hardware will potentially fade into the background as well at some point. It's very, very hard to say. The one thing that I can tell you is that whatever most people in the industry think that the industry is going to look like in five years, it's not going to look like that. I don't know how it's going to look, but it will be different than what we think. And that's the cool thing about it; you go along and see an idea, and you improve on that, and somebody else improves on that. It's a constantly evolving, very, very dynamic, very innovative industry. That's what I love about it. Anything else you want to say about Infinium? KB: Being inside the company, I think we were all very, very surprised by how intensely some people followed the company, really examining things. What was really remarkable about it was that when I would read certain things that people would forward to me or web postings or things like that, what was really remarkable was how extremely good at finding details and how extremely poor they were at analyzing them. So, somebody would find some little tiny nugget of information buried somewhere -- which was amazing that they found this tiny nugget of information -- but they would look at it in isolation and draw conclusions from it that were completely wrong, which was often times amusing, sometimes irritating, generally just baffling. But, I certainly learned a lot from them. You know, I don't regret being part of that company. I regret how things turned out. I really feel that they should have and could have turned out a very different way, but you know, it just is what it is.

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